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As the lift ascended at a glacial speed up two floors, through its collapsible grill door I could see women gossiping at open doorways or bargaining with vendors, the tell-tale signs of a building that housed residents who had moved from some village not so long ago.
I got out of the lift, gingerly stepping over stacked newspapers and wandered down a corridor to enter a room with personal computers lined up along its four walls. The lights in the room had been turned down, clearly to make the computer screens more visible. A dozen twenty-something men and women were sitting before these computer terminals with earphones attached, watching and listening intently and occasionally typing on the keyboards.
A young woman who was striding up and down the room with a managerial air noticed me hovering at the doorway and came forward, a welcoming smile on her face. She was expecting me.
"The class has already started," she said, leading me to a workstation and fitting me out with earphones. The computer screen in front of me was divided into three sections. Filling the right half of the screen was a power point presentation that was slowly rolling over with the words, "The debt to equity ratio of a company reveals..."
The left half of the screen was divided into two; the top half showed a live TV-like picture of a professor at his desk, explaining what was on the power-point screen. I could hear his clear, scholarly voice in my earphones. The lower left corner was like an Instant Messenger with many names listed, "Sneha-Coimbatore", "Divya- Delhi", "Karan-Calcutta", obviously the names of the other students who had logged on from throughout India to the same class as me.
We were all at a management class at one of IIM Calcutta's many Long Distance Education Centres. The lectures were being beamed over satellite from the IIM's Calcutta studios.
An hour later, not only had my fading memory of the implications of debt-equity ratios been refreshed, but I also felt like a person who had seen the future revealed to him. Here was a high-quality professor of finance, reaching out over the airwaves not just to a class of a few dozen but to a class of thousands! Had we at last figured out a way to leap over the faculty shortages that currently limit the growth of high-quality higher education in our country?
I could barely wait for the class to finish to talk to some of the students. What makes them battle the rush-hour traffic of the evening hours after a long and exhausting day at work to spend another hour at these gruelling management classes several times a week for a whole year?
"We get to learn management from the same high-quality professors who teach the two-year residential management programme at IIM Calcutta," said one student to me. "That's a great attraction".
"Isn't it tough to digest these management concepts sitting by yourself at a computer terminal?" I asked her. "After all, the students at the residential full-time programme can learn from each other through after-class discussions with each other."
"We also meet in groups on some week-ends to share notes and help each other," she said.
"Do all the students attend these classes rigorously? I mean, do any of them miss classes or drop out," I asked the manager of the centre.
"I haven't seen many missing classes here. That's probably because they are all working people who have put in five to seven years already and are paying for the course from their own earnings. And I can see that there is a camaraderie they have built among themselves which carries them through the year that the class lasts. Anyway, even if you miss the occasional class, the lessons are posted online for them to download and catch up."
Online education has its boosters and its detractors. Boosters see it as a way of making high-quality education affordable and available to a mass audience in an era where faculty shortages are endemic. They also see it as a healthy move away from the current system which places the burden of imparting learning on the teacher to a new approach that makes the student more responsible for his own learning.
Detractors, on the other hand, see online education as a 'cheapening' of the educational process and, because online education is often very profitable, an unhealthy pursuit of profit. While this debate goes on, almost all US universities have taken steps in online education.
'A student's university career... in the future, may no longer be through a particular place, time, or pre-selected body of academics, but through a network principally of students' own making,' says George Keller, former editor of the journal Planning for Higher Education. 'Students could stay at home or travel, mix on-line and off-line education, work in classes or with mentors, and take their own time. Their college careers wouldn't begin at age eighteen and end at age twenty-two,' but be a life-long process.
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